Dr. Randy Wykoff is the founding dean of the College of Public Health at East Tennessee State University and has been with the institute for 16 years. Most recently, he was named editor-in-chief of the Journal of Appalachian Health which focuses on improving the health for people across Appalachia. Over a cup of Turkish tea, Dr. Wykoff shared some most valuable insight about health, education, and community in our region.
A University’s Role in the Region
East Tennessee State University (ETSU) is a prominent component of the Appalachian region. ETSU was created in 1911 to bring teachers into Appalachia. Dr. Wykoff pointed out how isolated the region was back then with few automobiles and transportation primarily by horseback and hiking. “From the very beginning, this university was specifically created to meet a need in this region,” said Dr. Wykoff. He explained how the evolution of our regional needs, like in business and health, contributed overtime to the university’s business college and “health footprint.”
ETSU is not only a full-service university, but they have a focus on the region that helps to define and uplift its people through specific programs like the Center for Rural Health Research, the Center for Applied Research and Evaluation of Women’s Health, and the Addiction Science Center. “We like to say serving the region is in our DNA; it’s sort of how we were created,” said Dr. Wykoff.
In an excerpt from Appalachian Health, Julie Marshall and Logan Thomas said, “The overall well-being of a community reflects almost every issue impacting that community, especially its current economic conditions and its future economic prospects,” (p. 45).
Dr. Wykoff co-edited this award-winning book with the late Dr. F. Douglas Scutchfield. Many faculty and staff from ETSU’s College of Public health, along with other academic researchers contributed to over half the book’s chapters focusing on health issues and challenges that face the people of Appalachia.
In Chapter 2 of the book, Ron R. Roach notes that Appalachia can be “defined in very different ways” whether by geography, politics, economics, or culture. Our region is unique from living in some of the most ancient mountains in the world- Roach quotes them at 480 million years old- to the generations of folks who make up our communities and whose children become the leaders in our healthcare and tourism industries. “Think of a university, its main mission is teaching students,” said Wykoff, “ and the idea of taking their intellectual capacity and making a difference in their region is a challenge, but I think ETSU is pretty unique in that regard.” Wykoff discussed how most of the school’s undergrads come from the Appalachian region bridging a close connection between the university and surrounding community. ETSU’s College of Public Health invests into programs that are intentionally aligned with current workforce needs starting here in Appalachia.
“Appalachia is a place, a people, an idea, a culture, and it exists as much in the mind and imagination as on the map.” Richard Straw, “Appalachian History”
Wykoff explained social determinants of health as an idea that your health is based on many things such as genetics, behaviors, accessibility to healthcare, and the environment you live in. Outside of these determinants, there can be factors like education and one’s role in society. “In Appalachia, I think two of the really big ones are pervasive poverty and lack of educational achievement,” said Wykoff. These two things are what he refers to as “intergenerational cycles.” “If you’re born into poverty, you’re most likely to stay in poverty. If your parents are less educated, you’re more likely to be less educated. If your parents smoke, you’re more likely to smoke,” he said.
Wykoff noted that the issue isn’t something to be solved as one topic such as healthcare but rather a cluster of factors that are all interrelated. “Over time, poorer, less educated, less healthy communities actually see a widening gap compared to places with less poverty,” he explained, “and in our region, changes have to happen through collaboration.”
Be sure to check out The College of Public Health’s ongoing Speaker Series featuring Leading Voices in Public Health and Special Lectures.
Article & Photography By:
Alicia Bynum, AdventurePickle.com